Go With The Flow

Go With The Flow

Zeke Grader
Pacif Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Association, Executive Director
SF Gate, Read Online

A few years ago, a fresh effort to deal with the state’s perennial water problem was announced. Candidly, it hardly infused salmon fishermen and seafood consumers with starry-eyed optimism. The Bay Delta Conservation Plan was hailed by the Schwarzenegger administration and its legislative allies as a process that would pursue “co-equal” goals of Bay/Delta restoration and water delivery reliability. But as BDCP proceeded, it soon became obvious that the San Joaquin’s corporate farmers held all the aces, notwithstanding their junior water rights status. There was nothing “co-equal” about it: the basic plan calls for construction of two massive 33-foot diameter tunnels big enough to suck the entire Sacramento River dry. Salmon advocates and Delta community representatives were once again excluded, despite the fact that our stake in protecting the Bay/Delta estuary was and is paramount. Let’s not forget – our commercial salmon fishermen experienced 100 percent unemployment in 2008 and 2009 due to the Delta pumps diverting too much water and killing the salmon.

Then it looked like things were changing for the better. A couple of weeks ago, U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar pointedly invited fishery representatives to participate in a BDCP meeting and comment on the plan’s progress. We made our concerns clear: BDCP was being driven by the same old, tired and utterly erroneous notion that the Bay/Delta and our salmon runs can be restored while maintaining or increasing current levels of freshwater diversions. If we know one thing it’s that baby salmon headed down the Sacramento River during their spring migrations need big pulses of river water to carry them conveyor-belt-style through the Delta and out to sea. Without these annual surges of Sacramento River water through the Delta, neither the estuary nor the salmon survive.

Our observations drew immediate fire from San Joaquin agribiz bigwigs — specifically representatives of the Westlands Water District, at 600,000 acres the largest irrigation district in the country. Tom Birmingham, Westlands’ general manager, was so enraged at the notion that fishermen could be treated as BDCP co-equals that he threatened to withdraw from the negotiations.


A few days later another Westlands operative railed against federal scientists in front of a state Assembly hearing, insisting that political appointees make the decisions over Delta flows. Later, Westlands’ President Jean Sagouspe sent a letter to Interior Undersecretary David Hayes confirming the district’s intention to take all their all their marbles and leave the BDCP game. Hayes responded with a letter characterizing the district’s decision as “…short sighted and misguided…”

We agree. Nevertheless, Westlands has withdrawn from BDCP, as has another water contractor, the San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority. This is not surprising. Westside irrigators have a long history of threats, tantrums and posturing whenever their imperious agenda is questioned. Frustrated that the BDCP no longer serves their parochial interests, they will likely try other avenues to seize water, including Congressional riders.

We’re sorry western San Joaquin irrigators are upset at the idea that California’s water is a public resource rather than their private cash cow. Still, regrets aside, we must discourage their plutocratic delusions. Salmon need more water, and so do the thousands of working men and women who depend on catching, processing, selling and serving salmon for their livelihoods. We are willing to negotiate and compromise wherever possible — but when it comes down to the basic biological requirements of the fish that sustain us, we cannot compromise. We have to give our salmon the water they need. Their survival — and our survival — demand it.

Come to think of it, 600,000 acres of solar cells spread out in the sunny San Joaquin Valley would be a far much better use of the land than growing taxpayer-subsidized crops with taxpayer-subsidized water. It would generate a great deal of sustainable energy, significantly reduce the state’s carbon emissions and save vast amounts of water that could then be devoted to cities, fisheries and environmental restoration. Westlands’ growers could make money producing carbon-neutral power instead of killing salmon and poisoning land with selenium-tainted drainwater. How about it, Mr. Birmingham? Please — do the right thing.

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